A student climbs steps into the center of the University of Wyoming campus on a crisp October day in 2019. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

A lawyer for former University of Wyoming president Laurie Nichols has filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit between news organizations and the university trustees over records related to her March demotion. In the motion, filed Tuesday, Oct. 15, Nichols asked to review the records in question prior to any potential release, claiming ignorance of any investigation into her job performance and describing the trustees as unresponsive to her inquiries. 

Nichols’ motion came days after Albany County District Court Judge Tori Kricken ordered the university to hand over a second set of records for her review and indicated she was nearing a decision in the lawsuit brought by WyoFile and two other media organizations. 

A lawyer for the news organizations responded Friday, Oct. 18 with a motion opposing to Nichols’ intervention, saying it came too late.

Nichols move is expected to delay resolution of the lawsuit while the judge determines if Nichols has the standing to intervene.  

Bruce Moats, attorney for the news organizations, asked Kricken to reject Nichols’ motion because the former president sought to intervene at the last minute. Nichols’ attorney also did not provide evidence why Nichols’ interests weren’t already protected by the university, which has staunchly opposed releasing any records in the case, Moats wrote. 

The trustees have never given Nichols a reason for her demotion, Nichols’ attorney Megan Overmann Goetz wrote in the former president’s motion. Nichols also requested her personnel file but never received it, Goetz claimed in the motion.

Before becoming University of Wyoming President, Laurie Nichols chats with students during her first official visit to the campus.
(Thaddeus Mast/Laramie Boomerang)

“Nichols has never known of any investigation performed or done by Respondents or its agents into her job performance,” Goetz wrote. “Nichols additionally has never been told or informed by Respondents as to the reasons why her contract with the University of Wyoming was not renewed.” 

WyoFile, Lee Publications, Inc. and APG Media of the Rockies, LLC, sued the university and its trustees in June for the release of records related to the decision not to renew Nichols’ contract. UW blocked numerous records requests made by reporters prior to the suit. Lee publishes the Casper-Star Tribune and APG publishes the Laramie Boomerang and Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Contrary to Nichols’ denial that she had any indication there was an investigation until just last week, Moats wrote, Nichols was informed by reporters as early as June that an investigation was apparently conducted into her conduct. Reporters for the Casper Star-Tribune and WyoFile also contacted her for comment before publishing a story detailing evidence of an investigation on Sept. 26.

On July 18, Moats texted Nichols to inquire if she had counsel or a position on the lawsuit, he wrote in an affidavit included in his response. An attorney for Nichols subsequently called Moats to talk about the case and said Nichols would stay on the sidelines, he wrote in the affidavit. 

“She failed to seek intervention until the last moment,” Moats argued. 

Moats also argued that Nichols’ privacy interest in records related to her demotion was less than the public’s interest. News organizations “acknowledge that Nichols has an interest in this matter,” he wrote, “but contend that the privacy interest of a university president in her conduct is diminished because of the vital position she holds as the leader of the state’s sole university.” 

Ignorance of investigation

Nichol’s court filing echoes her public claims that the former president is ignorant of any investigation into her. Nichols has repeated that claim in media reports, including a Sept. 26 story co-published by WyoFile and the Casper Star-Tribune. That story reported that the trustees conducted a quiet investigation of Nichols’ conduct in the weeks before deciding not to renew her contract.

An invoice obtained by WyoFile and the Star-Tribune indicates that the university trustees paid $8,550 to Denver-based law firm Employment Matters LLC Flynn Investigations Group to conduct interviews in the weeks and days before the board notified Nichols on March 15 that she wouldn’t continue as president. 

Reporters contacted several people believed to have been interviewed as part of the investigation, and three confirmed they were contacted by outside investigators about Nichols.

The invoice obtained by WyoFile and the Casper Star-Tribune indicates the Denver law firm interviewed at least 14 people in the run up to the board’s decision. If Nichols’ repeated claims of ignorance in both statements to media and now a court filing are correct, she was not one of them. 

Contacted by reporters at the time, Nichols denied knowledge of an investigation through a different attorney. “President Nichols is unaware of any personnel investigation undertaken,” Casper-based attorney John Masterson wrote in response to reporters’ inquiries. 

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On Oct. 8 lawyers for the university agreed to hand over any invoices related to an investigation into Nichols for the judge’s review. Nichols claimed in Tuesday’s motion that the Oct. 8 hearing — more than a week after publication of the story that described the invoices — was the first time she became aware of the existence of any records pertaining to an investigation.

Goetz argued in Nichols’ Oct. 15 motion to intervene that  Nichols had a right to review the documents being reviewed by the judge in order to decide whether she had a privacy interest in the case. Goetz stated that Nichols “may in fact offer no objection to the release of any documents,” but had a right to see the contested records before a judge acts.

“Nichols has a fundamental right to learn of the existence of such an investigation,” Goetz wrote, “and understand the nature of any documents generated and respond appropriately before such information becomes available to the general public.” 

UW could no longer protect Nichols’ interests since she was no longer employed there, Goetz wrote. The university has mounted a staunch defense against releasing records related to Nichols’s departure, thereby protecting her privacy interests, Moats countered.

“The University has so vigorously defended the action that it has refused to even acknowledge the nature of the records withheld here,” Moats wrote. “It has refused to provide responsive contracts, invoices or payment information regarding any investigator, despite that the public interest is high in regard to the expenditure of public funds spent to investigate Nichols.” 

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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